By Jake Donovan
Networks love comparison fights, especially when the goal is to eventually match two fighters in a perceived super fight somewhere down the road.
The two-year long tease was that – after properly marinated – boxing would get the mother of all featherweight collisions between unbeaten titlists Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez. A comparison performance had already come the year prior, when Gamboa beat the stuffing out of Rogers Mtagwa just three months after Juan Manuel Lopez went life and death with the very same fighter one weight class below.
Still, Lopez enjoyed a brilliant enough 2010 campaign to where his handlers apparently thought he was bulletproof, and that taking on a version of Orlando Salido coming off of a hard-fought points loss to Gamboa was a good way to further pique interest in a future head-on collision.
What instead came about was a game-changing moment for the featherweight division, and the measuring stick for all other title fight upsets.
At no point in his 15-year career has Salido enjoyed an unbeaten streak that lasted longer than nine fights. Thrown to the wolves as a 15-year old in his native Mexico, Salido was forced to come up the hard way, as evidenced by his 11-7-2 (8KO) record prior to his 21st birthday, with all but two of the losses coming inside the distance.
Flying well below the radar was the career turnaround he has since enjoyed. Salido won 23 of his next 26 bouts heading into last April’s showdown with Lopez, a member of the 2004 Puerto Rican Olympic boxing squad and unbeaten through 30 fights and championship tours in two weight classes.
Missing from his career was a defining win that proved he belonged on the championship stage. He boasted a title win over Cristobal Cruz in 2010, avenging a loss from the year prior, but besides that had come no closer to proving his worth as a top featherweight than when he dominated Robert Guerrero in their Nov. ’06 pay-per-view preliminary.
The result that night would’ve served as among the biggest upsets of 2006, had Salido not subsequently tested positive for a banned substance, thus changing the result to a no-contest. Still, the win over Cruz and competitive showing in a losing bid against Gamboa suggested that Showtime had a decent TV fight on its hands.
However, somebody forgot to tell the Mexican that his job was to merely end at providing a stiff test for Lopez, who was making the third defense of his alphabet featherweight title. The Puerto Rican was coming off of an eighth round injury stoppage of former two-division champion Rafael Marquez, and had looked as good as at any other point in his young promising career.
For four or so rounds, he looked good but not great against a determined Salido in an expected competitive fight. What wasn’t quite as anticipated was Lopez being forced to contend with the type of adversity he would ultimately face in his native Puerto Rico.
A fifth round knockdown set the tone for bigger and better things to come, though Lopez’ rabid countrymen in attendance hoped that the instance was an isolated mistake and that things would quickly turn around.
They wouldn’t, at least not as much as Lopez and his supporters hoped would be the case.
The defending titlist was still shook as Salido went on the attack in the sixth round. Despite his previously revealed chin issues, Lopez proved himself to be durable, surviving perhaps the worst two rounds of his career to rally back and turn the tide in the seventh.
Rather than a fight-altering moment, though, it instead proved to be his last hurrah. Salido stepped on the gas in the eighth, pummeling a dazed but still alert Lopez. Referee Roberto Ramirez didn’t quite pick up on Lopez’ willingness to continue, jumping in to rescue the southpaw amidst a chorus of boos and other choice words not quite fit for print. Fearing for his safety, local ringside officials surrounded the in-ring boss man as he left the arena to ensure that he made it out unscathed – and more importantly, alive.
Gone were any hopes of staging a super fight between Lopez and Gamboa, or at least the thought of such a fight as it never appeared to be any closer to reality than when first pitched in 2009. No longer could promoter Bob Arum tease fans with the promise of making the fight “when they cleaned out the featherweight division and there’s nobody left to fight but each other.”
The one promise that Top Rank made and kept was that of a rematch, though even some of the luster from that fight has been removed. Lopez looked shaky for as long as his returning bout lasted with fringe contender Mike Oliver in late October. Salido saw a Fighter of the Year campaign drop off dramatically after being forced to overcome two knockdowns to rally back and stop lightly regarded Weng Haya in late December.
Still, there still exists a significant amount of curiosity as to what will transpire when Salido travels back to La Isla Encanta in late March for the return bout.
Expected is another fun TV fight, perhaps similar to what took place last April in terms of sustained two-way action.
Removed from the pending rematch is the element of surprise that came with the stunning finish of their first fight.
Stunning enough, that it produced the 2011 Upset Of The Year.
RUNNER UP – NOHUBIRO ISHIDA KO1 JAMES KIRKLAND
His first two comeback bouts since being sprung from prison and cleared to fight revealed little more than the fact that Kirkland wasn’t anywhere near the fighter he once was prior to incarceration. An upset was inevitable, but just not expected against this level of opposition, nor in the manner in which the fight ultimately played out.
Ishida was the very definition of a stay-busy opponent – 35 years old, minimal knockout power and boasting zero wins of note, while having lost every time he stepped up in competition.
Luckily for the Japanese middleweight, he found a heavily favored opponent who was ill-prepared for what the night would bring.
Kirkland had grown accustomed to the boot camp-style training sessions conducted by trainer Ann Wolfe prior to his break from the ring. However, the two disagreed over the planned direction of his career, leading the Texas southpaw to enlist the services of veteran trainer Kenny Adams.
That proved to be his first mistake. The second was his being led to believe that every opponent would faint the moment he laid hands upon them. Such was a painful lesson learned on this April night in Vegas, when Kirkland got caught very early in the fight and never recovered. Three knockdowns later, he was being rescued by Joe Cortez while suffering the first and lone loss of his career.
The humiliation suffered was enough to convince the proud fighter to reconsider what led him to stray from the trainer who knew him best, reuniting with Wolfe later in the year. The rest of his comeback campaign has played out magnificently well, as is detailed later on in the honorable section.
However this one lapse in judgment was enough to land him on the wrong end of one of the year’s most shocking results.
HONORABLE MENTION (IN ORDER OF OCCURENCE)
Allen Conyers UD10 James de la Rosa – If there’s an upside to de la Rosa suffered the lone loss of his career, it’s that it came on a sparsely attended show at the Silverdome during the dead of winter. Conyers – a journeyman even when he had a prime – was 34, inactive for more than two years and winless in nearly four years when he got the call to face the unbeaten Texan. Three knockdowns later, Conyers racked up the biggest win of his career.
Takalani Ndlovu UD12 Steve Molitor – Third time was a charm for the persistent South African, who lost to Molitor via decision the year prior and suffered the lone stoppage defeat of his career in July ’07. Both fights took place in Canada, but Ndlovu’s promoter was able to outbid Top Rank and bring their third fight to South Africa. Big plans were in store for Molitor, but what was thought to be a routine title defense proved disastrous as the 33-year old Ndlovu didn’t just win but dominated over the course of their 12-round bout.
David Lemieux L-TKO7 Marco Antonio Rubio/ L-MD12 Joachim Alcine – Too much too soon for the heavily-hyped Canadian, who was one win away from a title shot before running into the Mexican veteran in their ESPN2-televised main event in April. Rubio overcame a rough start to permanently turn the tide midway through the fifth. Lemieux found himself bloodied and battered in the sixth, and then dropped and eventually stopped one round later. Disaster once again struck later in the year, when Lemieux was outworked by 35-year old countryman Joachim Alcine in yet another shocking loss.
Jorge Arce TKO12 Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. – In his first fight with co-promoter Top Rank, then-unbeaten Vazquez Jr. couldn’t have asked for a better showcase slot – chief support to Manny Pacquiao’s pay-per-view headliner against Shane Mosley. Sadly for the second generation Boricua boxer, the night couldn’t have proven more disastrous. An early knockdown of Arce was squandered as Vazquez Jr. struggled to keep the past-prime veteran at bay, finding himself under siege along the ropes in the final round before being rescued by his father and trainer Wilfredo Vazquez Sr.
Grady Brewer KO4 Fernando Guerrero – What was supposed to be the first step of Guerrero’s transition from prospect to contender instead turned into a nightmare. Chin issues had surfaced in Guerrero’s career, but not to the point where anyone thought he’d struggle with 40-year old Brewer. Logic flew out the window in a disastrous fourth round that saw Guerrero rocked and dropped twice before the bout was halted.
Carlos Molina UD10 Kermit Cintron – In retrospect, this one isn’t as big of an upset as appeared to be the case on fight night. Still, few if any expected Molina to offer more than a tough night’s work against the returning former welterweight titlist. A win for the Chicago native wasn’t out of the question, but that he flat out dominated the 10-round Showtime co-feature bout was the first tell-tale sign that the end was near for Cintron.
James Kirkland TKO6 Alfredo Angulo – Rare is the occasion when the same fighter lands on winning and losing ends of fights in this category. But seven months after being drilled by light-hitting Ishida, few people believed Kirkland’s chin would hold up on the road against the durable Mexican. Those beliefs were nearly confirmed 30 seconds into the night, but Kirkland survived the knockdown and a hellacious assault to come back with one of his own in a fight-changing moment towards the end of the round, battering Angulo for the rest of the night before finally putting him away.
Kyohei Tamakoshi KO3 Dante Jardon – Basically a poor man’s Ishida-Kirkland. The free swinging Mexican was one win away from finding his name among the year’s top prospects prior to his bout with visiting and light hitting 30-year old Tamakoshi, fighting for the first time outside of Japan and in by far the biggest fight of his journeyman career. Things were going well for Jardon before running into a shot from which he never recovered, losing for the first time since his second pro fight.
Lamont Peterson SD12 Amir Khan – Kahn was on the verge of pound-for-pound accolades and distancing himself from the rest of the 140 lb field before running into the resurgent Peterson. A controversial opening round knockdown suggested that status quo would hold on this December night, but Peterson recovered and rallied back hard in front of all of his D.C. homeboys to edge out the Brit in a bout where two point deductions from Khan’s tally proved to be the difference on the cards.
Brian Viloria TKO8 Giovani Segura – Despite being the naturally bigger fighter and the bout taking place in his home away from home in the Philippines, Viloria was a near 3-1 underdog in his flyweight title defense against the granite chinned Segura. The experts were severely thrown for a loop as Viloria capped a Fighter of the Year-worthy campaign in shockingly dominant fashion, dominating the free swinging Mexican before forcing the stoppage in the early moments of the eighth.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .